For Internet regulation geeks, last week has been one of the most exciting events in recent time, as we have been presented with almost a crash course in some of the main regulation theories of the last 15 years. The release of thousands of leaked diplomatic cables by Wikileaks have presented us with the ultimate case study into the interaction between traditional regulatory methods and that vast, complex, self-regulating communications network that we call the Internet. We are currently witnessing a massive battle between government power, and the distributed and decentralised Internet. I know this sounds like the type of grandiloquent statement that under other circumstances I would normally be willing to criticise, but the importance of what we are currently witnessing cannot be overstated. The coming weeks may shape the Internet for at least the next decade as corporations, governments and regulators scramble to plug the leaks. Can they succeed?
The Wikileaks cablegate scandal will have serious repercussions because it contrasts two diametrically opposed views of the Internet. In one corner, we have the open Internet advocates, a ragtag conglomerate of journalists, activists, theorists, academics, hackers, and everyday users. On the side of a more closed and controlled Web we have what can be considered the establishment: governments, corporations, some media organisations, and a surprising array of right-wing proponents, conservative commentators, politicians of every ideological stripe, and old-fashioned authoritarians.
The relevance for Internet regulation theory should be hard to miss to anyone mildly familiar with the academic discussion of the last decade. It is no coincidence that at the forefront of the open Internet camp we can find the father of cyber-libertarianism himself, John Perry Barlow, who from his Twitter account has been marshalling the Internet troops. See, Wikileaks exemplifies the very idea of the Internet as an unregulated space, a new country where self-organisation reigns supreme, the very essence of Barlowian theory. Similarly, code is being used as a tool by both camps as a regulatory tool, in a nod towards Lessig’s ideas. The Internet’s architecture favours distributed solutions, therefore making websites like Wikileaks very difficult to successfully shut down.
Nonetheless, Wu and Goldsmith’s regulation of the choke-points has also had its day, and the attacks against the very infrastructure that sustains Wikileaks has been mildly successful. First Amazon removed Wikileaks from its cloud services alleging breach of their terms and conditions. Then the Wikileaks domain was removed by their DNS provider. Then PayPal froze their donation account, and the bank holding funds for the legal defence of Julian Assange followed suit. The financial onslaught continued when Master Card and Visa froze the Wikileaks funds they held. Even more, Twitter has been accused of wilfully filtering all Wikileaks-related topics from trending.
So, who’s winning the First Internet World War? Reading of today’s arrest of Julian Assange, and also reading the long list of services and payment providers that have ditched Wikileaks, one would be justified in thinking that the establishment is winning. But look again, the regulatory solutions offered so far have simply made the Internet angry, and just like Hulk, you don’t want to see the Internet angry. Hell hath no fury like a geek scorned. I believe it was John Gilmore who once said that the Internet interprets censorship as damage, and reroutes around it. This is a prime example of that.
Perhaps the first mistake made by the establishment has been to fall for the fallacy (or perhaps even ruse) that Wikileaks is Julian Assange. During the last week we have been subjected to a sickening number of quotes from politicians and commentators asking for the assassination of Assange, his arrest, the freezing of all of his accounts, and he has been pretty much declared as Public Enemy Number One by various media outlets. This has worked in favour of Wikileaks, as those making such calls fail to understand even the most basic principles of how the Internet works as a distributed network. Assange may be in a jail in London, but that won’t stop the leaks. This type of thinking is symptomatic of a larger malaise, the idea that just by removing one individual one can stop something as big as what has been unleashed by Wikileaks. Assange must be laughing in his cell.
The second mistake is to assume that the Internet will simply sit back and watch widespread state-sponsored and corporate-executed censorship take place without an answer. At the time of writing, Wikileaks is being mirrored in 1005 different sites. In fact, I just read that almost 14 new mirrors are going up every hour, or one new mirror every 4 minutes. Wikileaks has also made public the information of how to make more mirrors. Even if all of those mirror sites were removed (and I do not see how that might happen), Wikileaks has made available an encrypted torrent file which apparently contains all of the cables. And our friends from Anonymous have brought down the site from the offending Swiss bank with a Denial-of-Service attack.
If governments think that they can stop this leak, they are sorely mistaken. I seriously suspect that some of them know this, and that what is being done may be an exercise to try to stop future leaks. One of the most interesting stories of the Cablegate event is the speed with which credit card companies and payment intermediaries have frozen Wikileaks’ accounts. These are institutions who do not flinch from taking money from the likes of the KKK, yet they were incredibly quick to terminate all links to the beleaguered site. With allegations that the next leak will involve financial institutions, particularly Bank of America, one could see that it is in the best interest of various parties in the financial sector to see Wikileaks gone.
If you think the above sounds a bit paranoid, I remind you that if we have learned anything at all this week is that what many of us suspected about our governments and how they conduct their business has been proven right. There are shadowy agreements taking place all the time, so it may be justified to exercise a healthy dose of cynicism when it comes to the decisions of some corporations. Just because we’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after us.
So, the stakes are clear. We may be about to witness a big Internet regulatory clampdown that could see the erstwhile open Western democracies become more like China. To quote from a superb article from John Naughton in The Guardian:
“But politicians now face an agonising dilemma. The old, mole-whacking approach won’t work. WikiLeaks does not depend only on web technology. Thousands of copies of those secret cables – and probably of much else besides – are out there, distributed by peer-to-peer technologies like BitTorrent. Our rulers have a choice to make: either they learn to live in a WikiLeakable world, with all that implies in terms of their future behaviour; or they shut down the internet. Over to them.”
Establishment, the choice is yours.
And to all of you who think that we are living in the middle of a Stieg Larsson novel, you are not alone. Sorry to end with a less-than serious note, but what would TechnoLlama be without pithy and/or snarky one-liners? I have a reputation to maintain.